When your PhD is funded by an airport, certain things take a little getting used to. Firstly, your morning train ride will be shared with a lot of happy holidaymakers, which can be difficult to stomach when your destination isn’t a sunny one and your interview schedule for the day’s fieldwork isn’t finished. Secondly, there’s the ever-present possibility that the meeting you’re heading for might be cancelled at the last minute due to an Icelandic volcanic eruption or an unattended suitcase at Terminal 1. Thirdly, and by far most importantly, there’s the nagging question of who your research is for – a question that all embedded researchers must at some point grapple with.
Ultimately, every piece of academic research has a number of stakeholders: the funding council, university award or partner organisation that paid for it; the academic(s) conducting it; the participants who helped to generate the data behind it; the broader academic community that will receive the new knowledge it generates, and anyone in any way involved with a policy, service or piece of legislation that might change as a result of its findings. The paradox of doing a PhD is that a famously solitary activity does, in fact, involve a lot of people.
In the case of embedded research, the presence of the first and last set of stakeholders – the people paying for it, and the people affected in concrete terms by its outcomes – is particularly apparent: a partner organisation has invested resources in you, and in return they will normally be expecting some kind of outcome tailored to their own strategic goals. In my case as a PhD researcher, the airport provided the lion’s share of my annual studentship and, in return, my research had to be focused on the local area. There could not have been fewer strings attached. I had no problem identifying a research question that was focused on the local area, engaged with my own academic interests and had relevance in contemporary policy debates: how are young people’s occupational aspirations shaped by the areas they live in? But how did this research question align with the airport’s own agenda? In what sense was this research for my funder? After all, I owed my opportunity to pursue a PhD to the airport, and this was supposed to be a piece of embedded research.
During initial meetings at the airport it became clear that one of their primary goals as a large local employer and sponsor of a nearby secondary school was to raise the qualifications and skills of the local population, in order to create a more viable local pool of labour. I was almost taken aback at the airport’s candidness here: of course, they were interested in such a goal for its inherent value to the local population, but ultimately they had a lot to gain from any intervention that would help to raise the educational attainment, aspirations, qualifications and skills of the people living on their doorstep. Given this strategic goal, it’s not difficult to see how my research may contribute to local initiatives focused on the sorts of jobs young people in the area aspire to do when they’re older. However, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch with the airport – a truly ‘embedded’ relationship was never realised, and after the first 12 months my PhD developed independently of my funder. While academics would probably hail this as an instance of the proper independence of academia from business interests, I’m left with a sense of doubt: have I conducted a mutually beneficial piece of research? Has my research been for my funder? I will find out soon enough, when I meet with representatives from the airport for my final funders meeting – by which point my PhD will be a fait accompli and the opportunity for collaboration will be gone. I have no doubt that my PhD has been of benefit to me and to the policy context in which it is situated, and I can prove the relevance of my findings to the airport’s strategic goals. But the question of whether my research has been for my funder in any meaningful sense is far less certain.